On the way to St. Louis this week, I finished my latest read, A Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. Last year, I read Jacobs’ first book, Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest To Become The Smartest Person In The World, about his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and as soon as I heard about his latest effort, I was ready to pick it up at the bookstore. Know-It-All was one of those books with which I thoroughly annoyed Adventure Guy by laughing out loud frequently and insisting upon reading passages to him. He rarely finds these things as humorous as I do!
A Year of Living Biblically has its humorous moments as well, but fundamentally it’s a different sort of book (no pun intended). Jacobs, an agnostic who was raised in a secular Jewish family–he mentions that they demonstrated this by putting a Star of David on top of their Christmas tree–seems more introspective and serious in this memoir. The birth of his son, which was included in Know-It-All , brought up questions about religion and the role it should play in his family. The book project served two purposes: fodder for his writing efforts and personal quest to find meaning in both the Old and New Testament.
What I admire about this experiment is that Jacobs literally tries to follow all the instructions of the Bible. He takes them on a bit at a time, spending nine months of the year focusing on the Old Testament, which he admittedly feels more comfortable with, before moving on to three months of New Testament living. It’s amazingly hard to follow some of these rules; one of the funniest moments occured when Jacobs tried to figure out a way to stone people who break the Sabbath or commit adultery.
Jacobs’ quest to follow hundreds of Biblical instructions takes him from a Hassidic community in New York, to a Creationist museum, to Israel to find a long-long ex-uncle who once ran a commune, to a church that practices snake handling. What he finds is that even those who profess to be Biblical fundamentalists do not come close to following all the instructions found in the pages of that book. People pick and choose.
I couldn’t help but think as I read A Year of Living Biblically of my own religious experiences in recent years. I am what’s known as a “cradle Episcopalian.” I was baptized, confirmed, and married in the church. I loved the Liturgy, the tradition of the services, and the Episcopal church I grew up in and the one we attended in Suburbia melded that tradition with more progressive music, making the service very meaningful for me. Another thing I always appreciated about the Episcopal church was that it didn’t try to dictate to me what to believe. Could I agree with the Nicene Creed? If so, then we could agree to disagree about other topics like the ordination of women, abortion, and national politics. In my eyes, this was a major strength of the denomination. It was a thinking person’s church.
All that ended in this part of the country with the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. Robinson was the first openly gay man to become a bishop, though there are a number of openly gay priests in the Episcopal Church. Suddenly, a church that had traditionally agreed to disagree on social issues began to unravel at the seams over this issue. A number of churches left to become independent Anglican communities. Others affiliated with foreign bishops. Others stayed but refused to send money the national church. And the church we attended spent years arguing internally about the issue before deciding to leave to become independent, losing its property in the process and losing our family even before that.
Adventure Guy and I were among a very few congregants who did not believe homosexuality was inherently sinful. Sure it’s condemned in the Bible just like women speaking in church is. Hmm…I’ve never been a big fan of that restriction either. And what I know is that the Bible talks a lot more often about loving our neighbors and helping the poor than it does about homosexuality. We decided it was time to find a church that focused its efforts toward meeting those commandments.
Unfortunately what I found was that finding such a church meant leaving the Episcopal church, the church of my birth, the church I thought my funeral services would be held in. And it’s been hard. I still miss the beauty of the weekly liturgy, can still say it by heart three years later when we attend church with my parents. But what I’ve found instead–a church where I can express my views and be accepted even by those who don’t agree, a church where we spend our time feeding the homeless, rebuilding in New Orleans, taking medical services to Central America, and taking food to church members in need–that’s a place that’s been worth the journey to find. And when my children ask eventually why we made the decision to leave, I’ll be happy to tell them. Because I want them to know that we were not willing to stand by and accept discrimination and that we were willing to make some painful decisions in order to do the right thing.